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“We're living in an age . . . of really slow and boring technological change compared to what our ancestors managed to generate,” says Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times. He recently sat down with Editor Gideon Rose to discuss the current slowdown in technological innovation.
This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.
Gideon Rose: Martin, you wrote a wonderful article for one of our recent issues about how all the technological hoopla and optimism is way overblown, and that innovation is not in fact occurring at a dramatically higher pace and may even be slowing. So, being in your top curmudgeon mode, why are all the techno-optimists wrong?
Martin Wolf: There are many different aspects of this. The first one, which is pretty obvious, is that when we try to measure it, and statisticians really do try to measure it, what we're saying is a really very sharp and very disturbing slowdown in productivity growth. That slowdown is now at least 10 years old and probably a little bit longer, and productivity growth at the moment is really quite remarkably slow.
Second, if we look at it in a more sort of technological way, I would argue, yeah, we've seen quite important developments in the information technology area. That's clear. It's not always they're dramatically more significant then when we just introduced the mainframe. I mean, that was a dramatic change in our economies. More broadly, we forget how enormous the technological changes of the past were. We just take them for granted because we were born with them. But in the previous periods of technological change, we changed our whole energy system; we changed basically the whole health system in the most dramatic way, through clean water and reducing child mortality. We invented electricity, and we had lights, and radio, and television. We had the internal combustion engine, which gave us motor vehicles and aeroplanes.
If you think of those things, I think the iPad and the iPhone, they're lovely gadgets, I'm not against them, but pretty small stuff.
Gideon Rose: But driverless cars!
Martin Wolf: Well, how does that compare with cars? I mean, we went from the horse and buggy to the car. We went from even back to the horse to the steam train. Now the steam train really created the United States as a country. And the highways even more so. I mean driverless cars, that's nice. Not to have anybody driving my car. It's probably a bit safer. But it's a trivial change compared with what's happened in the past. Now in the future, here's the real dystopia. Now, let's suppose the optimists are really right. I think that is interesting. It's not where we are. And they start creating computers which are smarter than we are, can do everything we do.
Some of the future that we are threatened by in, I think, medical areas possibility of really reengineering human beings, that clearly raises the most profound moral and social questions. And similarly, if we really are looking at a robotic future in which machines can replace pretty well everything we do, including all our higher cognitive faculties, yes, the future of humanity comes into question. So, there are aspects of this would-be future which at least we have to think about very hard, and could be quite scary.
Gideon Rose: What about the argument that you're not seeing the gains in productivity in the statistics because we're unable to count the ancillary benefits of some of these technologies? We now have the ability never to get lost, and it comes at no cost, so you don't factor that in. Isn't that something that's not being fully factored in?
Martin Wolf: There is truth in that. Of course, believe it or not, I used not to get lost because there were things called maps, and one could read them, and one could get hold of them, and it wasn't so difficult. One survived perfectly well, but I think the important point to note is that all the technologies of the past that I talked about generated gigantic ancillary benefits. So to give you just one terribly trivial example, think what electric light meant for people living in northern Europe in the winter. Suddenly, instead of having a four hour day, they have a 14 hour day. They can have an ordinary work day... Suddenly the winter is productive. Used not to be at all productive. The whole winter is productive. That's one of the reasons Scandinavia did so well. Then, in addition, you can study. The children can continue to study properly throughout the year, lighting is cheap and easy. You've got a complete transformation of life.
Martin Wolf: Think of telephones. You've suddenly got telephones in the home. You can call if there's an emergency. It's not as flexible as a mobile phone, but I would say going from no phone to a fixed line phone is a bigger change than going from a fixed line phone to a mobile. So... And I can go through many, many other examples. Think of the impact of the washing machine, of what it's done in eliminating female labor therefore allowing women to go out of the home and start becoming a huge part of our labor force. That was an indirect benefit of these changes.
Gideon Rose: That's better than Blue Apron and GrubHub?
Martin Wolf: Yeah. Absolutely, it is. Much better. I mean, basically we're living in an age, in my view of a really slow and boring technological change compared to what our ancestors managed to generate.
Gideon Rose: Okay. So, you're basically throwing a cold shower on all sorts of positive things that young people care about, ____.
Martin Wolf: They're good, I have no obj... Well some of it's good. I'm not against this. Clearly these are improvements. I'm just saying in some respect, like all progress it's double edged so you lose things too, like siting down and reading. But all I'm just saying is we mustn't exaggerate the significance relative to the unbelievable transformation in my great-grandparents lives and my grandparents.
Gideon Rose: So, did the rate of progress and advance basically peak during your lifetime and is now trailing off or can we expect future cornucopias down the road?
Martin Wolf: Well, I think it's absolutely idiotic to forecast technology. So, I wouldn't dream of saying that there couldn't be transformations, we might see them actually. I mean we're beginning to see, for example, the inklings of what might be, we don't know yet, a really profound energy revolution. And that would be a really big deal. But I would say now, right in the moment, what we're looking at is a down swing.
Gideon Rose: We've been talking about the advanced industrial or developed world and gilding the lily in effect on their already extremely privileged and happy fortunate lives, that much of the world still hasn't reaped the benefits of many of the previous development you were talking about.
Martin Wolf: Correct.
Gideon Rose: And so, even if advances aren't continuing to go forward, the distribution of advances could still mean that human happiness will continue to rise very substantially as more and more people get access even to those things that were previously accessible only to a few.
Martin Wolf: Absolutely. There is no doubt about that. So, if I look at growth in the world economy and that is the way of thinking about human progress over the next 50 years, I would be surprised if weren't driven more by the catch-up in economies that are now, countries that are now relatively poor absorbing these new developments. That creates huge challenges itself, managing climate change and all these other things, but that seems to me is likely to be the bigger driver than advances in the frontier. That is not saying that advances in the frontier will stop, they clearly haven't. But China has shown, and I think other economies can learn from this, difficult. What you can do over a generation if you really make importing the technological advances of the most advanced countries your priority. In 35 years, they have transformed their country utterly in the way you suggest.
Gideon Rose: So, is there anything you're particularly optimistic about? Any frontiers technologically that you find interesting?
Martin Wolf: Well I think, as I've said, the energy system is potentially a huge deal that would transform our transport systems, above all our terrestrial transport systems in a very, very profound way. It is clear to me at least, that the potentials in biological science-based medicine, DNA-based medicine is huge, but it creates both great opportunities clearly and great moral challenges.
Gideon Rose: Even fewer jobs. What about the future of employment?
Martin Wolf: Well, the third question is indeed what the development of robotics and artificial intelligence would mean for substitution of capital for labor and ultimately the redundancy of most forms of labor. That would be dramatic. I wouldn't say unambiguously good, but it's clearly very, very dramatic. So, there's clearly are things going on and material science is another area where you could imagine really very extraordinary things happening. And I would just hope to be alive to see some of them.
Gideon Rose: Do you take pleasure at being so out of tune with the spirit of the age?
Martin Wolf: I don't... Actually, believe it or not, I don't really go out of the way to be into this or not. I mean, my job is to sort of work out what I think for myself about what's going on. I do think that there is a natural tendency for human beings to think that what they're experiencing in their own lives is one, unbelievably important, and two, in some ways never happened before. Well, personally I've been around for quite a while, and second, I'm very interested in history. And one of the things you learn is some things are really new but some things aren't as new as people think they are. I find great pleasure in telling people what you think is utterly and completely, and dramatically, and thrillingly, and uniquely new and dynamic, isn't.
Gideon Rose: And they should get off your lawn?
Martin Wolf: No. I'm perfectly happy for them to be on my lawn because without them being on my lawn, I don't have a job.
Gideon Rose: Martin Wolf, thank you very much.
Martin Wolf: Pleasure.